Movie Review: Shame

Fassbender should’ve got an Oscar nod.

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) would seem to have it all- good looks, a sweet bachelor pad in Manhattan, and a solid career. But you can tell from the first frame that this ain’t about wish-fulfillment. On the contrary, this is a near-great movie for the same reason that Entourage and Californication are a joke.

Admittedly, if those shows could be accused of peddling unrealistic fantasies of the excesses of the successful single guy, Shame might well be accused of moving a tad too far in the opposite direction. The film is downright obstinate in pursuing its dark vision, excessively so in the case of one final twist that detracts from an otherwise brilliant and disturbing study of modern sex addiction.

Even with that flaw, this remains a powerful movie experience that more often than not bears a shocking ring of truth. Steve McQueen’s direction is stylish without being overstated, establishing and maintaining a consistently eerie tone. His vision of New York, with its darkened streets, gray skies, and sleek interiors is matched every step of the way by a powerhouse performance from Fassbender, who fornicates his way through the city like an L-train moving from chilliness to the far reaches of despair. Fassbender and co-star Carey Mulligan, as his emotional ragdoll of a sister, reverberate off of each other perfectly, expressing a common sense of personal horror from opposite ends of the psychological spectrum.

The film hints at some sort of childhood trauma at the root of Brandon’s affliction, but such an explanation hardly seems necessary in a hyper-sexualized society where getting it on is increasingly detached, or even at odds with, the pursuit of deeper human connection. It is the exploration of that cultural fact, much more so than Brandon’s personal background, that gives the film its real power and meaning.

While it might be tempting at first to compare Shame to a film like  Leaving Las Vegas , with Fassbender using sex as opposed to drink as his chosen method of self-destruction, a more apt tonal comparison might be Carnal Knowledge, with its explosive depiction of the disaffected modern male chasing skirt right off the deep end.

Indeed, if Entourage and Californication are like the pop culture equivalent of Charlie Sheen- highly entertaining but ultimately whacked to the point of being unrecognizable- then Shame is like a humorless version of 70’s Jack Nicholson, slowly unraveling, losing his shit, backing off into dark corners that scare us precisely because we know they’re real.



How listening to these five musical artists before your next date can improve your sex life

So you’ve got a date tonight…presumably you’ll be taking a shower, choosing an outfit, combing your hair, all that good stuff, and you’ll need some music to listen to in the process. The right selection here can put you in the ideal state of mind for romantic success. The wrong one can set the stage for disaster. Avoid anything too deep or dark, anything that reminds you of ex-girlfriends or personal failure of any kind. Keep it light, upbeat, but not over the top. This is not the time for the “Rocky” theme or AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells.”  Satanic imagery is not good for the pre-date psyche. We’re looking for something that reinforces the required self-image: suave, debonair, laid back but totally in charge. That’s you. Here are five musical suggestions (in reverse order) that can help take you there:

5. The Eagles – Key Songs: “Peaceful, Easy Feeling”; “Take it Easy.”

Music snobs may look down on the Eagles, but these guys can serve you well in small doses. Sure you’re a bit nervous for the big date, we can almost see the wheels turning upstairs as you play out potential scenarios in the shower. Perfectly natural, but, hey, “Take It Easy.” Let Obi-Wan Don Henley remind you: Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy. Close your eyes, picture yourself standing on a corner inWinslow,Arizona, and there’s that girl/guy, my lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at you. That’s how hot you are. Feel the power. “Peaceful Easy Feeling” is packed with relevant insight here as well. We all found out a long time ago what a wo/man can do to your soul. Ah, but s/he can’t take you anyway you don’t already know how to go. Just remember, there’s no way your date can let you down- because you’re already standing on the ground.

4. Bob Marley – Key Song: “Three Little Birds.”

Three little birds upon your doorstep. What could possibly be wrong with that? Answer: Nothing. Don’t worry about a thing, cause every little thing…is gonna be alright. Nobody conjures up the pure joy of stress-free living like Bob. One caveat: Avoid the temptation to spark up a joint. Otherwise you may spend the majority of your night smiling and nodding while having no idea what your date is talking about. Or self-consciously wondering about that offhand comment s/he made about your shirt. Does s/he not like your shirt? What did s/he really mean by that? Lay off the dope and just soak up those positive Marley vibrations. Now go out on your date and sing sweet songs of melodies pure and true.

3. Steely Dan – Key Song: “BabylonSisters.”

In college we referred to this as the EDT’s. Easy Drinking Tunes. It works equally well in the pre-dating context. Just pop in “Decade of Steely Dan,” let it play through, and you’ll be in good hands. Not only does the music strike up an ideal pre-date mental image of hedonistic good times, but, in “Babylon Sisters,” you’re provided with a ready-made visualization (particularly for those on the left coast): “Drive west on Sunset to the sea. Turn that jungle music down. Just until we’re out of town. This is no one night stand, it’s a real occasion. Close your eyes and you’ll be there. It’s everything they say. The end of a perfect day. Distant lights from across the bay.” And if there’s an age gap in play, who cares if your date don’t know Aretha Franklin? Just have her take you along when she slides on down.

2. Sinatra – Key Songs: “My Way”; “Summer Wind.”

Now we’re venturing into the rarefied air of pre-date listening. Not only does Sinatra’s music take you where you need to be, but the man himself personifies what we’re going for. Much as we like the Eagles, you’re not gonna wanna head out for your date picturing yourself as a latter-day Don Henley. Marley was great, but unless you’re a dread-locked chronic pot smoker fromJamaicait may be hard to work the Marley persona into your repertoire. Steely Dan? Cool enough, but a tad dorky. Francis Albert Sinatra. Now that’s someone you can channel as you head off into the night. All swagger and attitude. Warmth and romance without an ounce of sentimentality. Feeling a little pre-date anxiety? Fix yourself a nice martini and let it drift away with the warm Summer Wind. Now go out and do it your way.

1. Joao Gilberto & Stan Getz – Key Song: “Girl from Ipanema.”

Stan Getz may not be as hip as Sinatra, but he’s plenty hip himself. More than close enough to suit our purposes here. Start off with “Girl From Ipanema” and let it go from there. Soak it in. The Brazilian bossa nova. A sublime dose of Latin romance. The musical personification of cool. This music is so cool that anyone who listens to it automatically becomes cool. It’s impossible not to. Picture yourself negotiating your date like a Getz sax solo: effortless, mysterious, self-assured, playful, timelessly sexy.


Restaurant Review: Rao’s at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas

Where it all began- the original Rao’s in Harlem.

The Rao’s story begins not in Vegas but in the Harlem region of New York’s upper Manhattan. And it begins not in this century, not in the previous century even, but in the century before that. It was in 1896 to be precise that Italian immigrant Charles Rao purchased a small saloon at the corner of 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue and named it Rao’s. With his death in 1909 his sons Louis and Vincent, who were born and raised in the house next door to the saloon, took over Rao’s for themselves.

Slowly, as the decades passed, Rao’s developed such a following in the local neighborhood that a small but growing cadre of patrons maintained standing reservations on certain days. Considering that Rao’s only has ten tables in the entire restaurant, that there is only one seating per evening, and that many existing reservations remain from decades before, it is no surprise that it has become virtually impossible for outsiders to land a reservation. The legend of Rao’s exploded on the New York scene once and for all when New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton published an ecstatic review in 1977. No longer was Rao’s a hidden gem for those in the know. Now, all of a sudden, it was one of the most sought after- and elusive- dining destinations in all of New York.

In this regard, food lovers everywhere rejoiced with the opening of a second, much larger Rao’s at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The design and atmosphere of the Vegas Rao’s certainly can’t match the history and soul of the New York location but it has one key advantage- you can get a table here. And most importantly of all, the food, by all accounts, is exactly the same as the food served at the original location. Which is to say that the food at Vegas Rao’s is delectable. Mouth watering. Old school Italian dishes with a distinctive twist that you won’t soon forget.

Whether you’re visiting Rao’s for a romantic dinner with your significant other or in a large group, family-style, with shared dishes, is the way to go. Start things off with the wonderful Antipasto Della Casa (for two- priced at $29), featuring prosciutto di parma, mild sopresata, roasted bell peppers, mixed olives, buffalo mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, grana padano and gorgonzola cheese over dressed arugula. Swing into the main course with a pasta side dish topped with Rao’s unmistakable signature marinara sauce ($23). Made with san marzano tomatoes, this sauce is truly bursting with flavor, the type of flavor where you can literally taste the quality and freshness of the ingredients. It would be criminal not to pair your pasta with a side of Rao’s traditional meatballs in that same wonderful sauce ($16 for two- they’re not small). If you wanna work some veggies into the mix, check out the Peas & Prosciutto, an ideal complimentary dish ($15).

Also distinguishing itself in the pasta section of the menu is the Orecchiette with Broccoli Rappe and Sausage ($26). If you’re wondering what orecchiette is, it’s a somewhat rare and (if you ask me) vastly underrated circular pasta. The name derives from the word orecchio, Italian for “ear,” because orecchiette bears a passing resemblance to a small ear. Either way, it works beautifully in this dish alongside sweet Italian sausage and broccoli rabe, all sautéed in a delightfully flavored extra virgin olive oil. This dish exemplifies what lifts Rao’s above the masses of ho-hum Italian eateries: interesting variations on traditional dishes and perfectly constructed recipes executed with the finest ingredients.

Moving on to the entrees, two of the more memorable offerings include Uncle Vincent’s Famous Lemon Chicken ($26) and the Steak Pizzzaiola ($48). The first of these consists of quartered charcoal broiled chicken served in an excellent lemon sauce. As for the Steak Pizzaiola, it’s a pan-seared 17 oz. prime shell steak sautéed and topped with bell peppers, button mushrooms, onions, and those same san marzano tomatoes that the marinara sauce is based on. Vegas is full of steak houses that talk a good game, but few, if any, serve a steak as perfectly charred and flavorful as this one. The novelty of the pizzaiola style makes for an excellent pairing with the meat itself. More traditional steak lovers who view this pairing with initial skepticism may find themselves pleasantly surprised if they approach with an open mind.

In these cases, and across the menu, Rao’s serves up consistently memorable dishes that are beautifully flavored but always subtle, never overdone. The atmosphere is about as charming as it gets in a casino location. Indeed, the hardwood floors and moderately sized separate rooms seem far removed from the rows of slot machines and blackjack tables that sit outside and around the corner. The jukebox- a legendary component of the New York Rao’s- sets the tone here as well, with plenty of Sinatra, Johnny Mathis and the like wafting through the air as you finish up another great meal with an after-dinner drink (grappa anyone?) and a healthy slice of creamy tiramisu.

CD Review: Gorillaz, Plastic Beach

Back in the 80’s a year like 2010 would have been imagined mostly in terms of jet-powered backpacks, robotic house servants, interstellar space travel, perhaps some sort of “beam me up” mechanism, basically one big, happy orgy of technology-propelled human contentment.

Well I’m still waiting for my jet-powered backpack. In the meantime, I’m noticing that the “future” isn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Turns out our natural resources are not inexhaustible after all. We’ve got pollution issues, energy shortages, mind-numbing commercialism on one end and shameless exploitation of human labor on the other. As for technology, it has its advantages, sure, but some would say it’s having troubling effects on old school human interaction.

Okay, so here’s the good news: Gorillaz is part of this future as well and they’re here now with their third album, Plastic Beach, a sprawling modern musical collaboration, eclectically sourced yet tightly focused, sonically ambitious and legitimately poetic, not just a “concept” album but a sustained artistic statement about the major themes of our times.

The “plastic beach,” it seems, could be a massive floating island of garbage in the middle of the ocean. Jamie Hewlett’s cover artwork shows the plastic refuse rising up into a mushroom-cloud shaped mountain which supports some sort of tacky architectural monstrosity that might well occupy the hills over the Malibu coast. A superficial show of wealth built on the most questionable of foundations. I wouldn’t wanna be gridlocked on PCH when it all comes crashing down. But if I was I’d very likely be listening to this album.

Plastic Beach may not be as emotionally resonant as LCD Soundsystem’s The Sound of Silver and it may not be quite as musically ground-breaking as Radiohead’s Kid A, but it’s in the ballpark, and that’s saying something. Like those two modern masterpieces, Plastic Beach, for all of its identifiable influences, sounds like the future.

Damon Albarn, the musical maestro behind Gorillaz, creates complex but sneaky-catchy electronic soundscapes and balances out his technology-heavy approach by bringing in some of the world’s most distinctive human voices. Snoop Dogg kicks it off on “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach” and is followed by a parade of world class vocalists like Mos Def, Bashy and Kano, De La Soul, Gruff Rhys, Lou Reed, Bobby Womack and the Japanese singer Yukimi Nagano.

On “Superfast Jellyfish” De La Soul and Gruff Rhys offer a hilariously funky take on fast-food consumption. Nagano stands out on a pair of great duets with Albarn including the dreamy “To Binge,” which sounds like space age bachelor pad music for Leonard Cohen fans. Former Clash guitarist Mick Jones makes a notable appearance as well, laying down a stellar intro to “Plastic Beach.” And then there’s Albarn himself taking the reins on some of the album’s best tracks, including “Rhinestone Eyes.”

Through it all, the album takes an uncompromising look at everything from environmental degradation to sweatshop workers to the impact of technology on human relationships. On “Broken” Albarn sings, “It’s by the light/Of the plasma springs/ We keep switched on/All through the night while we sleep…And the space has been broken/Broken/ Our love/ Broken.”

But there’s a notable strain of optimism as well. For all the technological prowess of Albarn’s sound, there’s always a human voice straining to break through, none more human than Bobby Womack, alone on “Cloud of Unknowing,” when he sings, “Every satellite up here is watching/But I was here from the very start/Trying to find a way to your heart.” Turns out the future isn’t about jet-powered backpacks after all. It’s about trying to get back to where we started.

-Chris Marakovitz


Restaurant Review: Rao’s at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas

Where it all began- the original Rao’s in Harlem.

The Rao’s story begins not in Vegas but in the Harlem region of New York’s upper Manhattan. And it begins not in this century, not in the previous century even, but in the century before that. It was in 1896 to be precise that Italian immigrant Charles Rao purchased a small saloon at the corner of 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue and named it Rao’s. With his death in 1909 his sons Louis and Vincent, who were born and raised in the house next door to the saloon, took over Rao’s for themselves.

Slowly, as the decades passed, Rao’s developed such a following in the local neighborhood that a small but growing cadre of patrons maintained standing reservations on certain days. Considering that Rao’s only has ten tables in the entire restaurant, that there is only one seating per…

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The dreaded sophomore album. No easy task for the young artist. After blowing away critics and fans alike with their sensational debut Oracular Spectacular in 2008, MGMT now returns with their follow-up effort Congratulations. As the saying goes, a band has an entire lifetime to write their first album and six months, maybe a year, to write their next. Beyond the creative challenge there’s also the general weirdness of overnight commercial success, particularly for younger types firmly invested in the self-image and outward identity of the bohemian outsider. All of a sudden there’s mass acclaim. Limousines, groupies, sycophants swirling about. In other words precisely what MGMT fantasized about in 2008’s “Time to Pretend.” Be careful what you wish for, MGMT. Now the pressure’s on.

Of course rock is full of historical precedents when it comes to approaching the sophomore album after a smashing debut. The first option is to confirm your artistic genius and staying power by creating a second album as good or better than the first (Led Zeppelin, Joy Division, Beastie Boys). Much less desirable is the possibility of whiffing entirely and fading rapidly into obscurity (Violent Femmes). There are those who have pretty much driven themselves crazy trying to find their way after a classic debut (Axl Rose) and those who have continued to produce good work while carefully pulling back from the precipice of mainstream rock stardom (Pearl Jam). And then there’s the Liz Phair approach. After provoking an avalanche of critical acclaim with her debut opus Exile in Guyville in 1993 (Pitchfork ranks it is as the fifth best album of the decade), Phair said of her 1994 follow-up Whip-Smart, “I made sure it wasn’t shitty, but I didn’t worry about whether it was, like, A+.”

This seems, in a nutshell, to be the approach that MGMT has applied to their own follow-up effort. There’s nothing here as boldly original and exciting as Oracular Spectacular’s “Time to Pretend,” “Kids” or even “Electric Feel.” Rather, Congratulations is at times appealingly understated and at other times maybe a bit underwhelming. Still, there’s nothing here that changes the overall impression of MGMT as one of the better young bands of their generation. It’s just that the pleasures of Congratulations are a little less ecstatic, a little more subtle, and, yes, a little less frequent than those of Oracular Spectacular. Cases in point: “It’s Working” and “Someone’s Missing,” neither of which grabs you from the beginning but both of which build up to some unexpected and sneaky-good flourishes.

In other cases MGMT seem to be quoting even more directly from their influences than they did on album one, admittedly a troubling trend. On “Brian Eno” they come right out and name a song after one of their musical idols. Several other songs on the album might well have been named after artists who obviously inspired them as well. “Lady Dada’s Nightmare” could have been called “Floydian Instrumental Interlude.” At times MGMT even acknowledge their influences with winking lyrical references. “Flash Delirium” is pure Bowie and when Andrew VanWyngarden sings: “sue the spiders,” a nod to Ziggy and the Spiders from Mars, it seems more likely that the spiders would sue MGMT for robbing their musical schtick. Still, if “Flash Delirium” is a Bowie rip off, it’s a damn good one, as in, like, it’s almost as good as Bowie. That’s more than enough to make it the best song on the album.

The 12 minute plus “Siberian Breaks,” on the other hand, is a bit on the meandering side, and probably not quite as epic as the band might have intended. It’s a twisting, turning ride leaning at one point in the direction of seventies folk-rock with a shout-out to the Mamas and Papas followed by a Leonard Cohen tribute so dead-on as to border on imitation (“Oh Marianne pass the joint,” sings VanWyngarden). It’s also here where the band begins to deal with the ramifications of their overnight success: “Wide open arms can feel so cold/And you can sit beside me and tell me what it’s worth/But I hope I die before I get sold.” But it’s with the mellow groove of the title track that closes the album where VanWyngarden really lays it out: “It’s hardly sink or swim/When all is well if the ticket sells/Out with a whimper/It’s not a blaze of glory/You look down from your temple/And people endeavor to make it a story.” So maybe MGMT’s sophomore effort isn’t a blaze of glory, but nobody’s suggesting they vacate the temple just yet.